WARNING: This story contains graphic and distressing content.
At a courtroom near Hamburg on Thursday, a 96-year-old woman fails to appear at her trial after going on the run. As she is declared a fugitive and an arrest warrant issued, it is almost the stuff of comedy, especially as all she seems to have done was get on a metro train from her retirement home and travel a couple of stops. She is quickly apprehended.
What Irmgard Furchner stands accused of, however, is rather less amusing. She worked as a typist in a concentration camp where more than 65,000 people were murdered, around 28,000 of them Jewish. Thousands died in the camp's gas chambers. Others were clubbed to death, drowned in mud, killed by lethal injection, shot or worked to death. The allegation, which she denies, is that she knew what was going on.
At almost the same time, in a west London coffee shop, a softly spoken man is talking about the very subject of Nazis escaping justice – or in Furchner's case, if she is convicted, justice catching up with them.
"Did you know," he says, "that at Auschwitz, when they ran out of Zyklon B, the guards for a bit of a joke would grab newly born babies and young children, open up the ovens and throw them in alive for the fun of hearing them scream?"
The fact that the speaker has the dark, intense eyes and big, jutting beard of a Biblical prophet, or possibly a Speakers' Corner preacher, makes even someone hardened to Holocaust stories wonder just a bit about its accuracy. But it turns out to impeccably sourced from, among other works, a scholarly book published just last year by Mary Fulbrook, professor of German history at University College London.
The bearded man goes on to talk, with references again, about the mass shootings of Jews in villages across eastern Europe before the concentration camps got into full killing mode, and how the massacres were watched by locals in a carnival atmosphere.
"Line after line of naked people, including women and children, thousands of them, would be shot and falling into a pit and watching it were people having a picnic, as spectators, with wine and cheese and bread and dogs running about.
"The point is," continues the man, "that the men who were having a lark killing babies in Auschwitz and organising – even filming – the public slaughters in those villages in almost every case got away with it and went on to have children of their own and live respectable, untroubled lives – hundreds of them here in Britain.
"Even with the current fuss about this being the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, the appalling, shameful fact is that 99-plus per cent of those who committed what I believe to be the worst crimes in history were never even questioned about them."
The man in the coffee shop with his chilling "they walk among us theme" is no preacher and no mere armchair historian; he is David Wilkinson, a 65-year-old actor and film director, who has timed the cinema release of his documentary Getting Away With Murder(s) to coincide with both the Nuremberg Trial commemorations and, more poignantly, the moment that the last remaining victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust are dying.
The film, which Wilkinson directs and presents, has taken him 18 years and a near six-figure sum of his savings, as well as those of his wife, Amy Roberts, costume designer for The Crown. He also called in favours from film-industry friends, including Dame Eileen Atkins, who voices some of the most shocking accounts of how nearly a million of the worst criminals in history got away unpunished or barely punished.
Wilkinson, a Yorkshireman from Horsforth, near Leeds, made one stipulation of those he invited to work on the film: that, like him, they shouldn't be Jews.
The idea came from Wilkinson's friend and dramatist Sir Ronald Harwood, who was Jewish. "Before he died last year, Ronnie said: 'You must explain to people that you're doing it because you're angry and ashamed at the injustice, not because you've got an axe to grind.'"
The result is a spellbinding film which, due to its length (more than three hours) and unremitting horror, is likely to be more the stuff of streaming services than popcorn night at the multiplex.
The criminals that Getting Away With Murder(s) concentrates on are mostly small fry, rather than the "headline acts" like Hermann Göring and Rudolph Hess, who were dealt with at Nuremberg; but small fry guilty of unfathomably massive crimes, nonetheless – such as like Anthony Sawoniuk, who lay low for 50 years, living in a council flat in Bermondsey, south London, and who worked for 20 years as a ticket collector at London Bridge Station.
Sawoniuk, a Byelorussian collaborator, was known to have murdered 15 women whom he had ordered to undress, spraying them with a machine gun and then pushing them into pits. Sawoniuk managed to get to the UK in 1946. He retired on a pension on which he could live out the remainder of his years – but was eventually tried, in 1999, and died in prison in Norwich six years later. He was the only one of the 400-plus war criminals in Britain who was convicted.
Then there was Anton Gecas, a Lithuanian who took part in executing up to 40,000 Jews and Russian prisoners of war. He lived in the Scotland from 1947, attended Herriot Watt University and worked for the National Coal Board. He later ran a popular Edinburgh bed and breakfast. Despite the Lithuanian authorities trying to extradite him, he died in Edinburgh in 2001, unpunished, aged 85. His neighbours in the Scottish capital were Jewish.
Anton Jurczuk and Oleksa Fedoryn were two former members of the Ukrainian Self-Defence Legion – otherwise known as the 14th Waffen SS – living freely in Nottingham until they died in the early-Noughties. Jurczuk was working as an electrician.
In the same city, in the university suburb of Beeston, lives to this day Malka Levine, originally from the town of Volodymyr-Volynskyi in the Ukraine. She is one of 30 survivors of a massacre of 25,000 Jews by Jurczuk and Budzinskyj's unit. A friendly farmer had hidden her as a baby and members of her family in a hole under his barn. Yet she was unaware until interviewed for Wilkinson's film that men who were likely involved in the murder of her family and neighbours were living close by. "Their names are clearly on duty rosters from that time," Wilkinson says. "She was horrified that she could have been on the bus or in the supermarket next to one of them."
Outside Britain, there are many more stories of monsters living mundane, untroubled lives. "Many of the Germans," Wilkinson says, "just moved back to their hometowns and resumed life under their own name. The notorious Dr Mengele himself travelled back from Argentina to Germany under his own name twice, stayed in his hometown and was sheltered there by nuns. It seems only the police were unaware he had returned for a visit."
One German who didn't even bother to disappear to South America was Johanna Altvater, who had once entered a small hospital full of sick children in Levine's hometown and started throwing them from a third-floor window, killing some and severely injuring others. Another favourite game of Altvater's, says Levine, was to take a newborn baby, tear it into pieces and put it in the gutter.
Altvater was tried in 1978 and again in 1982, her defence being that she was only a secretary. She was acquitted both times and died in 2003, a week before her 85th birthday. In her hometown in Germany, she was a council youth worker.
Gustav Wagner, nicknamed "The Beast", was the first deputy commander of Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. He ran the selection process that led to slave labour or death, where some 250,000 Jews were murdered. Sentenced to death in absentia, he escaped to Brazil. After his exposure, several extradition requests were rejected. In 1980, aged 69, he was found dead with a knife in his chest. His attorney said that he had committed suicide.
Herberts Cukurs, the "Butcher of Riga", was a pre-war aviator and Latvian national hero who directly participated in the mass murder of more than 30,000 Latvian Jews. In one instance, in 1941, he ordered an elderly Jewish man to rape a young Jewish woman; any prisoners who looked away were personally beaten to death by Cukurs. He escaped to Brazil after the war, where the Soviets tried unsuccessful to extradite him. He was assassinated by Israeli Mossad agents in Uruguay in 1965, aged 64. But in Latvia he remains a national hero; a musical about him premiered in Liepaja in 2014.
David Wilkinson accepts that Getting Away With Murder(s) is unlikely to have a long cinema life. He also acknowledges that there is a queue of subsequent, more recent unpunished outrages in countries around the world – and that it is a lot to expect people to be knowledgeable about one from almost a century ago.
There are hundreds of Nazis with similar stories, says Wilkinson. "But I just want people, even by simply reading about the film and not watching it, to be aware that we know the exact identities and often the addresses of the many culprits who got away with murder. And that hundreds of them lived here in the UK."